In the previous Consider Wesley, we saw that John Wesley’s answer to why the Methodists, despite the advantages given them by their doctrine and discipline, are in spiritual decline. It was, he said, their failure to practice self-denial. But this does not complete Wesley’s diagnosis of the problem.
In “Causes of the Inefficiency of Christianity” (1789) he asks why “self-denial in general” is “so little practiced at present among the Methodists.” His observations lead him to conclude that the “Methodists become more and more self-indulgent, because they grow rich.” While many are still poor, others have over decades become much “richer than they were when they first entered the society” (§16).
The danger of riches is not a new concern for Wesley. He sees it as central to Jesus’s teaching and to the New Testament church. Over the course of his ministry, he published sermon after sermon on the topic, including “Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount VIII” (1748), “Self-denial” (1760), “The Use of Money” (1760), “The Danger of Riches” (1781), and “On Riches” (1790). Perhaps only his death in 1791 prevented him from writing more.
In contemporary American society, to be rich is considered to be in the millionaire or billionaire class. Wesley has a more biblical definition. As he says in “The Danger of Riches,” “Whoever has sufficient food to eat and raiment to put on, with a place where to lay his head, and something over, is rich” (§I.1) By this definition, most Americans today are rich.
But Wesley’s net is larger still. He is concerned not only for those who are rich but also for those who desire to be rich. For the root of the danger of riches lies in the desires of the heart. To desire riches, whether as a yet-to-be-fulfilled aspiration or as an actual possession, is to shape one’s life around possessions and wealth, not around God. “You cannot serve two masters,” Jesus warned, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt 6:24).
Note that Wesley is not speaking here of the poor, who lack food, clothing, or home. Their desire to have enough for themselves and their families is appropriate. The problem is with those who want more than enough and devote their lives to accumulating it.
In Wesley’s writings, he identifies two deadly spiritual effects of the desire for riches. The first is that it leads us to seek life and happiness apart from God, in created things rather than the Creator. Our hearts and lives are centered on and shaped by something other than God. Second, our concentration on acquisition and possessions puts our focus on ourselves rather than others. It compromises compassion and subverts generosity. In sum, the desire for riches is a massive impediment to obeying the two great commandments to love God and neighbor.
Recent studies have shown that Wesley’s worries were not misplaced. A few years ago, Robert Solomon did a segment for PBS on experiments done on how people act when wealthy. Not only did having wealth seem, in most cases, to increase self-centeredness and lessen concern for others in real life, it also did so in game play. When persons played a Monopoly game openly rigged to favor one of the players, over time that player began to act in imperious and demeaning ways toward the other players. In hundreds of varied experiments, this kind of behavior was seen again and again. One’s background or political preferences made no difference.
Wesley wondered in “Causes of the Inefficiency of Christianity” if Christianity has a tendency “to undermine and destroy itself.” For true Christianity causes “diligence and frugality, which in the natural course of things, must beget riches. And riches naturally beget pride, love of the world, and every temper that is destructive of Christianity” (§17).
Whatever we make of Wesley’s musings, a good argument can be made that churches and denominations lose their vitality and become more accommodating to society as their members move into the middle class. But even more concerning is that for many in America, riches as Wesley defines it is readily accessible without much diligence and frugality. In addition, we live in a media-saturated environment that works overtime to inculcate within us those desires for more that Wesley found so deadly.
Wesley’s solution is the same as he proposed in his 1760 sermon “The Use of Money.” Make all you can, by honest labor (diligence). Save all you can, by not wasting money on that which you do not need (frugality). Then, most crucially, give all you can—give all that you do not need to those who do not have enough. This not only removes from our lives this great danger to our salvation but puts into action the love that is what new life in Christ is all about.